Some of my favorite 2014 keyboard CDs….

Notice that I don’t say “best new keyboard releases of 2014.” That would be completely unfair to all of my colleagues and friends! I’m talking about keyboard recordings from this past year that grabbed and held my attention, stirred me up, and opened new doors. Of course there’ve been plenty of important box set reissues and archival releases to appease the insatiable pianophile. They deserve their own list and blog entry. Maybe I’ll do that next.

Here are just a few of my big playlist items from this past year:

1. Mamuro Fujieda: Patterns of Plants. Sarah Cahill, piano (Pinna). In a way, Fujieda is the Japanese Mompou, in that he writes short and often gentle pieces that are far more sophisticated in design and texture than meets the ear. The same can be said for Cahill’s subtle, nuanced and gorgeously engineered pianism.

2. Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Op. 101, 106. 109, 110 & 111. Igor Levit, piano (Sony). This young pianist navigates Beethoven’s combative linear style with a fusion of mind, instinct, flexibility and marksmanship that not only augers well for a complete Beethoven cycle, but also makes me curious to hear his much talked-about interpretation of Frederic Rzewski’s “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!”, as well as next season’s Bach Goldberg Variations collaboration with Marina Abramović.

3. François Couperin: Pièces de clavecin: 7th, 8th, 25th, 26th, & 27th ordres. Blandine Verlet, harpsichord (Aparte). Although it’s all but impossible to locate Verlet’s marvelous complete Couperin cycle on the Astrée label (at least I haven’t been able to do so), she has recorded several favorites again, and takes her sweet time allowing embellishments to rise and fall with maximum expressive variety and harmonic tension, as if she’s improvising the music on the spot.

4. Eric Craven: Piano Sonatas 7, 8 & 9. Mary Dullea, piano (Metier). Although this composer normally shuns the limelight, his music deserves serious attention. His structures are sort of open ended, leaving many decisions to the performer. The music is alternately sparse, dissonant, lyrical, petulant, fiery and static, yet the ups and downs are easy to absorb. Mary Dullea’s committed and refined artistry doesn’t hurt, either.

5. CPE Bach: Complete Works for Piano Solo. Ana-Marija Markovina, piano (Hänssler Classics). At long last, a truly complete collection of CPE Bach’s capricious, inventive and endlessly fascinating solo keyboard output on 26 discs. Care and consideration govern each and every aspect of this release, from packaging, programming and sound quality to Markovina’s idiomatic, communicative interpretations.

I invite you to share some of your favorite 2014 keyboard releases as we get ready to ring in the new year. Have a happy and healthy 2015!

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Claude Frank (1925-1014)

Within minutes after Claude Frank’s death at age 89 on December 27th was announced, tributes and memories began to flood social media. One could put a heft memorial book together from Facebook posts alone. I only met Mr. Frank once, at the 2002 memorial for Karl Ulrich Schnabel held at the Manhattan School of Music. He shook my hand, and thanked me for writing so positively about his recently reissued Beethoven Sonata cycle, while I thanked him back for merely existing, and for his inspired music making. Sad to say, I only heard Mr. Frank once in recital, as part of the 1987 Wall-to-Wall Schubert Marathon at New York’s Symphony Space, when he played the composer’s great B-flat Sonata D. 960. But his Beethoven cycle proudly stands the test of time, and here’s a link to my review.

http://www.classicstoday.com/review/review-8059/

Please share your memories of Mr. Frank here.

Daniel Martyn Lewis: BachPianist on YouTube

Christmas and J.S. Bach. The two are inseparable. Think of Columbia University radio station WKCR’s annual holiday Bach festival, think of the composer’s extraordinary Christmas Oratorio. It’s music that certainly evokes festive, celebratory images, yet the sense of order is what keeps me calm at a time when chaos and pressure lurk around the corner.

That’s what I love about my friend Daniel Martyn Lewis’ Bach: the sense of order, the purity, the lack of artifice, yet with plenty of grace, fluidity, style and taste. I first met the Australian born/Wales based pianist more than ten years ago, when he was in New York to play Bach’s Goldberg Variations. The program also included Bach Solo Violin Sonata. He played it note for note on the piano, as written, not making anything pianistic. Just Bach’s notes. And it worked, I was captivated. In another season Daniel played a magnificent Well-Tempered Clavier Book I at St. Peter’s Church. He recorded Book II a few years ago, and I hope the public will hear it soon.

In the meantime, Daniel has a new YouTube channel, BachPianist (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCXoRBp2eyBNL8np0_iKd3jA). His first three videos will bring order and calm and joy on Christmas Eve and beyond.

Till soon – happy holidays!

Celebrating Harris Goldsmith (1935-2014)

The piano world – in fact, the whole classical music community – lost one of its most articulate, opinionated and vibrant voices this past April when the noted critic, pianist and teacher Harris Goldsmith passed away.

While a previous commitment prevented me from attending last night’s memorial for Harris at the Mannes School, the event’s host Sedgwick Clark asked me to prepare a brief written remembrance for the program. Trying to express my affection for this remarkable man within a 150 word limit was not easy. Still, I thought it fitting to share my brief thoughts with you.

“Harris changed classical record reviewing forever. His prose was direct and accurately descriptive, literate, passionate and witty, informed by his deep working knowledge of the so-called standard repertoire and beyond. One could say the same about his provocative pianism and his inspired teaching. He could be devastatingly succinct and spot-on, nailing Alfred Brendel’s Chopin disc in two words flat (“Occupied Poland!”). On the other hand, when I’d phone Harris with a Toscanini or Cantelli question, he’d respond non-stop for about 45 minutes, citing chapter and verse. I miss our concert encounters, our chance meetings at Academy Records or the Lincoln Center Library that inevitably led to a meal where we’d lock horns over the latest Beethoven cycle or competition winner, or riff into the night about nerdy discographical minutiae. And although thousands of great past performances lived and breathed inside that amazing database of a mind, Harris always looked ahead, supporting and encouraging new talent. He taught us all.”

Jed Distler, December 18 2014

Please share your personal memories or thoughts about Harris here.

Beethoven’s Birthday List

Probably because I’ve written countless CD reviews and booklet notes about Beethoven’s music, people often ask me to recommend “the best” performances of a symphony, string quartet, piano sonata, and so on. It’s impossible to do so, because there are so many excellent recordings from which to choose, more than ever before.

However, a few years ago a friend challenged me to put together a playlist with 32 pianists in all 32 Beethoven sonatas, one pianist for each sonata, and no repeating of artists. Only commercial recordings are allowed, but they don’t necessarily have to be in print, or even available on CD. You can even pick a period instrument rendition if so desired.

So here’s just one of many possible and plausible lists. Who would you add or eliminate? What would your own list be like?

In the meantime, happy 244th birthday, Ludwig!

Piano Sonata No. 1, Op. 2 No. 1 in F Minor: Zoltan Kocsis (Philips)
Piano Sonata No. 2, Op. 2 No. 2 in A Major: Miezcyslaw Horszowski (Nonesuch)
Piano Sonata No. 3, Op. 2 No. 3 in C Major: Garrick Ohlsson (Bridge)
Piano Sonata No. 4, Op. 7 in E-flat Major: John O’Conor (Telarc)
Piano Sonata No. 5, Op. 10 No. 1 in C Minor: Stewart Goodyear (Marquis)
Piano Sonata No. 6, Op. 10 No. 2 in F Major: Seymour Lipkin (Newport Classics)
Piano Sonata No. 7, Op. 10 No. 3 in D Major: Vladimir Horowitz (RCA)
Piano Sonata No. 8, Op. 13 in C Minor (“Pathetique”): Idil Biret (IBA, 1986 Finndar recording)
Piano Sonata No. 9, Op. 14 No. 1 in E Major: Awadagin Pratt (EMI)
Piano Sonata No. 10, Op. 14 No. 2 in G Major: Maurizio Pollini (DG)
Piano Sonata No. 11, Op. 22 in B-flat Major: Wilhelm Kempff (DG, 1951 mono version)
Piano Sonata No. 12, Op. 26 in A-flat Major (“Funeral March”): Angela Hewitt (Hyperion)
Piano Sonata No. 13, Op. 27 No. 1 in E-flat Major: Artur Schnabel (EMI)
Piano Sonata No. 14, Op. 27 No. 2 in C-sharp Minor (“Moonlight”): Mischa Dichter (PentaTone)
Piano Sonata No. 15, Op. 28 In D Major (“Pastorale”): Murray Perahia (Sony)
Piano Sonata No. 16, Op. 31 No. 1 in G Major: Richard Goode (Nonesuch)
Piano Sonata No. 17, Op. 31 No. 2 in D Minor: Sona Shaboyan (Guild)
Piano Sonata No. 18, Op. 31 No. 3 in E-flat Major: Alfred Brendel (Vox)
Piano Sonata No. 19, Op. 49 No. 1 in G Minor: Stephen Kovacevich (EMI)
Piano Sonata No. 19, Op. 49 No. 2 in G Major: Peter Takács (Cambria)
Piano Sonata No. 21, Op. 53 in C Major (“Waldstein”): Ronald Brautigam (BIS)
Piano Sonata No. 22, Op. 54 in F Major: Friedrich Gulda (Amadeo, his 1968 remake)
Piano Sonata No. 23, Op. 57 in F Minor (“Appassionata”): Sviatoslav Richter (RCA, 1960 studio version)
Piano Sonata No. 24, Op. 78 in F-sharp Major: Egon Petri (EMI)
Piano Sonata No. 25, Op. 79 in G major: Gerhard Oppitz (Hänssler)
Piano Sonata No. 26, Op. 81a in E-flat Major (“Les Adieux”): Solomon (EMI)
Piano Sonata No. 27, Op. 90 in E Minor: Ivan Moravec (Supraphon)
Piano Sonata No. 28, Op. 101 in A Major: Igor Levit (Sony)
Piano Sonata No. 29, Op. 106 in B-flat Major (“Hammerklavier”): Peter Serkin (Pro-Arte, his 1986 Steinway recording, not his earlier Graf fortepiano recording)
Piano Sonata No. 30, Op. 109 in E Major: Myra Hess (APR)
Piano Sonata No. 31, Op. 110 in A-flat Major: Harris Goldsmith (Brilliant Classics)
Piano Sonata No. 32, Op. 111 in C Minor: Eric Le Sage (Alpha)

2014’s best box sets (in my opinion!)

The recording industry’s box set trend refuses to take a breather, and 2014 ends up all the better for it. If the 2013 Wagner and Verdi 200th birthday celebrations galvanized major labels to dizzy heights, the same went for 2014 anniversary milestones, notably Richard Strauss’ 150th birthday and C.P.E. Bach’s 300th.

There were lots of reissues of reissues and recompiled compilations, as well as systematic, comprehensive surveys devoted either to a specific artist, genre, body of work, or group of recordings. I had the good fortune to annotate many of these.

Everyone’s notions about the year’s “best” will differ, and I’m sure that my short list omits items that others might find indispensable. I also left out sets that contain my annotations.

1. Bob Dylan & The Band: The Bootleg Series Vol. 11 The Complete Basement Tapes. (Sony Legacy)
2. The Allman Brothers Band: The 1971 Fillmore East Recordings (Mercury)
3. C.P.E. Bach: The Complete Works for Piano Solo Ana-Marija Markovina (piano) (Hänssler Classics)
4. Pierre Boulez: The Complete Columbia Album Collection (Sony/BMG)
5. Schneider Quartet: The Complete Haydn Recordings (Music & Arts)
6. Ferenc Fricsay: Complete Recordings on DG Volume 1 (Deutsche Grammophon)
7. Chuck Berry: Any Old Way You Choose It – The Complete Studio Recordings Plus! (Bear Family)
8. Lili Kraus – The Complete Parlophone, Ducretet-Thomson & Discophiles Français Recordings (Erato)
9. Collectors Edition: Richard Strauss – The Complete Tone Poems & Concertos (Decca)
10. The Columbia & RCA Victor Live Recordings of Louis Armstrong & The All-Stars (Mosaic)

Leave a comment and share your 2014 box set of the year choices.

Encore!

Let’s talk about encores. After the main part of a recital ends, out come the encores. Encores are the little deserts after the main meal, so to speak. They usually are short pieces characterized by ear tickling virtuosity or heart melting sentiment. Over time, certain encores and artists became joined at the hip. For example, audiences refused to budge until Myra Hess played “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” or Vladimir Horowitz eased into his signature Schumann “Traumerei.” Although encores usually seemed effortless and tossed off, the greatest pianists actually lavished lots of time polishing and perfecting them. Think of a Horowitz Moszkowski Etude or his own transcription of Sousa’s The Stars and Stripes Forever. Or Marc-André Hamelin combining all three Chopin A Minor Etudes into a brilliant tour-de-force.

To be sure, certain lofty-minded pianists avoided encores. When asked why he didn’t play encores, Artur Schnabel replied, “The applause is the receipt, not the bill.” I never heard Claudio Arrau nor Rudolf Serkin play encores, although they did so during their younger years.

By contrast, I remember Idil Biret’s 2003 International Keyboard Institute and Festival recital, where she served up one encore after another, as if she didn’t want to stop. But that was nothing compared to András Schiff’s 2013 Carnegie Hall concert. The first half contained Bach’s Goldberg Variations, with all repeats. The second half featured Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. Total time, roughly two and a half hours of music. After the Diabellis, Schiff played the long Arietta second movement of Beethoven’s Op. 111 Sonata. A 17-minute encore, yet somehow it felt appropriate, given the recital’s large-scale design and content.

While encores should appear spontaneous, they work best when they fit into the program’s overall design. For example, “Jesu, Joy” gently capped Angela Hewitt’s Miller Theater Goldberg Variations performance many years back. And after an intense and uncompromising all-Schubert program from Alfred Brendel, Schubert’s simple and unassuming Hungarian Melody provided a much needed release for the audience, and probably the pianist himself. Conversely, the Scriabin Etude encore following Maria Perrotta’s live Decca recording of the last three Beethoven sonatas seems like an incongruous fit. So did a Chopin posthumous C-sharp Minor Nocturne following an all-Stockhausen recital’s second half. I often hear young pianists give this Nocturne as an encore, as if it had been automatically programmed into their encore memory banks. Press the button, and out comes Chopin.

What are your most memorable encore moments?